Overview on Women’s Issues & Trade Agreements
Trade Agreements Based on NAFTA Model Have Proven Harmful to Women, Proposed New Rules Threaten Further Damage
International trade, a dominant force in the global economy in which women live and work, inevitably will affect women. Nine years of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) model of trade liberalization has proven harmful to women in all three NAFTA signatory countries. Now, new agreements such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), several bilateral agreements, and negotiations in the World Trade Organization (WTO) stand poised to expand trade rules into new areas. By not addressing the impact on women’s lives and livelihoods, these new agreements could have significant negative ramifications for women throughout the world.
After nine years, the data shows clearly that the NAFTA model of trade liberalization has a disproportional, negative impact on women in all three countries.
For U.S. women, trade related job loss has a disproportionate and severe impact due to the fact that women’s employment is concentrated in areas often affected by trade, such as textile and apparel industries. In fact, according to a 1999 survey, 66 percent of all recipients of NAFTA-Trade Adjustment Assistance were women. (General Accounting Office, “Trade Adjustment Assistance: Trends, Outcomes, and Management Issues in Dislocated Worker Programs” GAO-01-59, October 2000). In addition, when U.S. companies shut down or move abroad, it is unlikely that women will be re-employed in good-paying union jobs comparable to those in manufacturing. Though women may find non-union jobs in retail trade and services, for example, textile jobs pay 64 percent more than retail sector jobs: $451.00 in weekly wages for non-supervisory workers, compared to $274.83 for retail. (BLS, October 2000). Jobs in the service sector are often less secure and offer fewer benefits.
For women in Mexico, the effects of NAFTA liberalization have been particularly severe. As has been documented, the majority of small farmers worldwide are women. Many small farmers in Mexico have been forced off their land as NAFTA has put small farmers in fierce competition with big agribusiness firms and driven down commodity prices. In this situation, Mexican women must migrate with their families to cities to find work. Such work for women in Mexico is often concentrated in the Export Processing Zones (EPZs), or Maquiladoras, where women earn wages which are often not enough to sustain their families and pay for a higher cost of living in the cities. In addition, NAFTA has locked in a model of unenforceable labor and human rights in the EPZs, wherein women face such threats as on the job discrimination, sexual harassment, and violence. Women workers in many factories in Mexico have reported rampant physical abuse and sexual harassment. In addition, mandatory pregnancy testing as a condition for employment is often standard practice (Spieldoch, White 2003).
Given the negative impacts to women under NAFTA, it is clear that the impact of trade policies on women must be considered within the context of current and future trade negotiations. Unfortunately, no negotiating group has thus far undertaken a discussion of how women’s lives (indeed, basic human rights) could be affected by agreements currently under negotiation such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
Unless future agreements include core worker’s rights with enforceable protections for women workers, it is likely that the same kinds of job loss, wage depression and human rights violations generated under NAFTA, will expand throughout the Americas. In addition, new rules under the FTAA, CAFTA, bilateral trade agreements, and agreements on agriculture and services within the WTO could create new hardships for women.
New rules in trade agreements could adversely affect women in the following areas:
Women’s access to affordable medicines. Through new rules on intellectual property rights, agreements currently under negotiation could make affordable medicines an impossibility for women and their families. The language in the Singapore Free Trade Agreement, for example, backtracks on progress made in the WTO agenda established at Doha, by further restricting the ability of governments to produce their own generic drugs or to import them from non-patented producers. According to the United Nations, 70 percent of the world’s poor are women. Without affordable medicines, this large population of poor women would not be able to provide care for themselves and their families.
Women’s access to essential services. New rules expanding trade liberalization in the service sector could severely limit access to vital services such as healthcare and education. Language in the FTAA’s service section as it now stands could threaten access to affordable healthcare, education and clean water by subjecting governments to new rules which may limit their ability to regulate services trade and investment in the public interest. The deregulation of vital services such as healthcare and education would have a disproportional impact on women due to the fact that women are usually responsible for providing healthcare and education for their families. Women may not be able to provide for their families if domestic policies meant to guarantee affordability and accessibility can be challenged as barriers to trade.
Women’s rights in the workplace. Despite the negative record of NAFTA with regard to worker’s rights, the FTAA negotiating process has yet to include an official discussion of labor rights. In fact, the FTAA includes only one mention of labor rights, which is an unenforceable provision in the investment section that countries should “strive to ensure” that their existing labor laws aren’t weakened to attract trade. Completely absent from the FTAA text is any mention of core International Labor Organization (ILO) standards, including the standard of no discrimination in the workplace.
Women’s ability to sustain their livelihood as farmers.Worldwide women make up the vast majority of all small farmers in developing countries. In fact, women subsistence farmers accounted for 62 percent of total female employment in low-income countries in 1990 (Mehra, Rekha & Sarah Gammage 538). Agricultural policies in trade agreements within the WTO, in CAFTA and the FTAA that focus solely on tariff reduction without addressing issues of industry concentration or price pose a great risk to small farmers. If the NAFTA model is followed, these agreements would further eliminate supports for women small farmers while subjecting them to increased competition from cheap imports.
Women-owned businesses. Government procurement has long been a tool by which federal agencies are encouraged to purchase goods or services from women-owned businesses. In the U.S., many small, women-owned businesses who would not otherwise have access to contracts, benefit from government investment. For example, in 1998, more than 50% of government contracts awarded to women-owned business went to small businesses owned by women of color ( Spieldoch, White 2003). The proposed FTAA language on government procurement would undermine governments’ ability to implement federal, state and local policies based on public interest criteria.
The NAFTA model of trade agreements has proven not to work for women. It is clear that trade negotiators must take into account the ways in which trade agreements affect women, and that new trade agreements not repeat the failed NAFTA model, nor should new agreements expand in reach without core labor protections in place and clear attention to women’s needs and livelihoods, including access to essential services and medicines.
Trade Is a Women’s Issue Foreign Policy in Focus, December 2002
Other Related Materials
US and Peruvian Women Say “No” to US-Peru FTA International Gender and Trade Network, November 3, 2006
Gender & Trade in the US: Building a Research Agenda International Gender & Trade Network, February 2006
Letter to USTR on labor abuses in Ecuador & Columbia November 8, 2005
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: The Cut Flower Industry in Ecuador International Labor Rights Fund, April 2005
Extraordinary Work of Art Puts Human Face on Global Economy National Labor Committee, January 25, 2005
Made in China, Woman to Woman Boston Globe, September 19, 2004
U.S. Trade Act Ignores Sexual Harassment United Press International, June 23, 2004
Behind the Brands: Working Conditions and Workers’ Rights in Export Processing Zones International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, December 6, 2004
Informe en Español
Trade Is a Women’s Issue Foreign Policy in Focus, December 2002